Thursday, March 16, 2023

Review: A Day of Fallen Night by Samantha Shannon

 Sometimes the need to live up to the hype is what undermines the book.

I have heard Samantha Shannon referred to as the "sapphic daddy" for The Priory of the Orange Tree, and credited to an extent with kickstarting the current trend of lesbian high fantasy. Whether that's true or not is by the by, but the sentiment exists. Especially in the wake of the success of the sapphic trifecta (The Jasmine Throne, The Unbroken and She Who Became the Sun), and the sudden resurge of popularity of The Priory of the Orange Tree on tiktok. And, riding off the back of this surge in popularity, comes the new prequel - A Day of Fallen Night.

If you watch the tiktoks, you will notice a pattern in a lot of them - praise for the worldbuilding, the sapphic relationship, and also a number of people urgently wanting to reassure you that while it looks like a heckin' chonker of a book, it's really not that bad, honestly, truly it isn't. There's a whole microgenre of tiktoks that are people telling you books you may already have read that have a longer wordcount than it. The enormity of it has become part of the mystique and the selling point. And so it's no surprise that A Day of Fallen Night is also enormous. She is, as the kids say, thicc. And why shouldn't she be? If we cannot be sprawling and epic in high fantasy of all places, where can we be? But that chonkitude has, I think, come at something of a cost here. It's a slow book, and frankly, a book that feels bogged down by unnecessary fluff. It feels, if I'm being honest, like it's been made so big purely to fit into the brand that Priory created, rather than as necessitated by the story it wants to tell.

And that story is a good one! It's not all doom and gloom here. We follow primarily four viewpoint characters through a time 500 years before the story of Priory, when the world is becoming hotter and drier, and strange forces seem to be awakening. A mysterious plague has sprung up, spreading through the lands, and terrifying beasts are awakening from the dark recesses of the world. The viewpoints are arrayed initially at the four points of the compass, showing us the way this threat affects various places, and giving us different understandings and approaches to such mystical and deadly forces. These four characters are all close to, but not holding, great temporal power, and allow us to watch the political machinations that ensue from all the chaos. They're also all pretty compelling as people.

We have Glorian, the young princess of Inys, whose bloodline supposedly holds in check a great beast once vanquished by her ancestor the Saint, and who must, at all costs, produce an heir to that bloodline, as well as help her mother bolster their unshaky rule after a run of weak or terrible rulers before them.

Then there's Wulf, housecarl to the great uniter of the northern kingdom of Hróth, but originally from Inys, keen to prove himself and hoping to escape the dark rumours that have followed him everywhere since he was found abandoned at the edge of the supposedly haunted wood at the heart of the kingdom.

Then Tunuva, a sister of the priory of the orange tree, a woman trained from birth to defend the world against the great beast she knows Glorian's ancestor had no part in defeating, alongside her sisters, but also a woman carrying with her an old, old hurt in her heart that she cannot bear to let go, and trying, with her partner Esbar, to steer their daughter into good decisions as she grows to adulthood.

And finally Dumai, a godsinger living at the top of a mountain, waiting for the return of the ancient Seiikinese gods from the ages long slumber, wanting nothing more than to succeed her mother as the most senior of their number at the temple, and to climb the mountain with her closest friend, Kanifa.

All four are pulled into the threads of the great threat to the world, and must play their often disparate parts in trying to defeat it, or at least survive it.

And in that, the book is interesting - Shannon herself has talked about how this is not just a novel of defeating evil, but of enduring, of living through it. And that does show at points - the world, as is so often the case in epic fantasy, faces a threat absolutely insurmountable to mortal means, and maybe some part of how those threats are dealt with has to simply be getting through them. To survive is to win. And that is, at points in the story, something of a novelty and a boon.

But it is also part of the problem - because the characters are called to endure, to survive this thing they cannot possibly vanquish, they are at times stripped of agency. Which is part of the interest, but which leaves them unable to drive the novel forwards with the pace something of this size desperately needs. Especially during the middle third, the pace feels boggy and slow, and the various threads the characters are wandering along feel meandering and irrelevant. You know they'll resolve, because they always do, but it makes it a much less fun journey when they don't feel as if they will. And this feeds into the feeling that the book has been made long simply to be long. It covers the span of several years, and maybe, just maybe, we don't need such a long view? Maybe we can hurry things up, just a little bit.

It is also let down by the need for many of its arc-readers to reassure people that yes, you absolutely can read it if you've never read Priory, of course you can. And... yes, I suppose, technically, that's true. But so much of what is meaningful in this story landed for me precisely because Priory had already done the work for it. Yes, it is reiterated here, but none of that repetition managed to do for me what Priory did and infuse a sense of wonder and mystery into the world, and an appreciation that this ancient danger that threatens the whole of that world might be real and imminent.

What it instead does - and does well - is embellish what Priory did before. It adds richness to a world you already know. In my opinion, the Inys storyline in Priory is the best fleshed out one, and thus it is Inys I most remember. So getting to see more of Inys, and the ancestors (and indeed, namesake) of the queen I read first is a delight. Shannon has not lost her touch for worldbuilding - her Inys is one that feels reminiscent of both England of old and the England of myth and legend, and that balance of the real and the magical is one of the best parts, for me, of both Priory and A Day of Fallen Night. She's... less good at the world outside of fantasy-medieval-England, and the people there, though never without commitment to the world she's creating. It is always rich, and deep, and obviously thought through, there are just occasionally some choices that make me go "hmmm". What she has done here, however, is to swivel the focus a little less closely onto Inys, and give the other places in her world that bit more time to breathe, thus lifting them a little compared to how they fared in Priory. It's not perfect, but it's better, and in parts very good, and if immersive, sprawling and rich worldbuilding in a fairly traditional epic fantasy world (though one that does admit to and embrace the existence of places outside of Europe) is what you seek more than anything, this book is likely for you, especially if you've read Priory and want to inhabit that world longer, and pick up some threads of histories mentioned briefly there, and to understand some parts of it more.

But as a new book, for someone who hasn't read its predecessor? I'm not so sure. I think it's a book more concerned with fitting itself into the particular little legend of Priory, both in-story and in the meta, than in creating a standalone masterpiece. And that's fine. Just don't let the people who love it convince you it's anything else. And don't necessarily expect the drama of the plot or the people be what carries the most weight here. In my view, the primary purpose of A Day of Fallen Night is in that worldbuilding, in that creation of more content in Inys, and in Seiiki, and in all the other places we saw or heard about in Priory, and it is only in the secondary that it's concerned with a strong plot, or compelling character relationships. It lacks the substance that the central romance of Priory managed, because while there are romance threads, and the characters involved in them are individually delightful or interesting or complex, none of them have that focussed, slow burn chemistry that came through in Priory. Which, for me, is a real shame, as that was one of the things I really took and remembered from it.

On the whole, while I mostly enjoyed reading it, I definitely kept coming up for air with a sense that his really did not need to be quite as big, and slow and lumbering as it has ended up being, and wondering if the mythos of the first book has found its way into the creation of the second. I think there is a tighter, more elegant book that could have existed in the place of A Day of Fallen Night's place, but it's not what we go. If you go in wanting world building, wanting sprawl and slowness and to just sit in and immerse in the world? Then it may well be what you want. But it lacks, for me, the special something that made Priory sing, despite its flaws (A Day of Fallen Night is, by far, the better paced of the two, without the dramatic frenzy of happenings at the end that Priory has), and so I never felt I loved it, despite its connections. For me, it did not live up to the quite intense hype I've seen it get, and for that, I am a little sad.


The Math

Highlights: a re-examination of the lore of a well-constructed world, a genuinely interesting cast of varied characters, an interest in the place of motherhood in an epic fantasy narrative, sapphic as heck

Nerd Coefficient: 6/10

Reference:  Samantha Shannon, A Day of Fallen Night [Bloomsbury Publishing PLC, 2023]

POSTED BY: Roseanna Pendlebury, the humble servant of a very loud cat. @chloroform_tea